Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

The life of the English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, has proved an endlessly fascinating subject for writers. Romulus Linney’s Childe Byron does deliver a dramatic condensation of Byron’s history, but by focusing on Byron’s daughter and her demands that he justify his life to her, the play gives the familiar story a somewhat different twist and allows an investigation of the relationship between the artist and society. How much does an artist owe to his public? What can a public reasonably expect from an artist beyond his work? What are the boundaries between the work and the life? What are the emotional and artistic costs of fame? These are the central questions that Linney dramatizes in his telescoped life of the poet, and since Byron was in many ways the first modern literary celebrity, his life can be seen as a cautionary tale about what happens when a man’s personality becomes more important in the public mind than his work.

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The play renders Byron’s life in all of its technicolor excess—literary, sexual, alcoholic, athletic—yet his more serious dilemma emerges clearly enough in spite of all the flamboyance. He is troubled by the sense of obligation he has toward the public that has made him famous. Fame brings amusing distractions, but they are distractions still. At the end of act 1, importuned on all sides by admirers who offer him their wine, their dinners, their beds, Byron fights free from their insatiable demands, crying “I must do something more with my wretched life than fornicate with you, write verses, and have children by my sister.” The public, however, will not let him do more. He is trapped in a role of his own creating, forced to perform it for as long as it pleases the public; when it no longer delights, adulation turns to revulsion and society casts him out as a criminal and a pervert. There is clearly a point at which an artist cannot defy social codes and still court social favor.

Byron responds to this treatment with fire and cynicism. In his big act 2 aria of denunciation, he turns against the chorus of accusing voices and exposes the small-minded hypocrisy behind his public disgrace: “You are the canker and the worm! You are the death of the heart! And you will never, ever admit that you are also, at the bottom of your souls, man and woman, every last one of you, the same poor animal I am.” His candor allows him to defend himself to his daughter as a sexual and social rebel, a spirit elevated above those who refuse to admit and live out their own passionate desires. He accepts his exile proudly and contemptuously, but the hurt is genuine, and he is clear-sighted enough to see that.

A secondary and connected theme of the play is the relationship of father and daughter. Like Hamlet questioning the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the mathematician questions and debates the ghost of the poet to discover the truth about his life and death. She is equipped with logic and a skepticism which allows her to pierce Byron’s more self-serving rationalizations to uncover the things that make them kin. The truth, she discovers, is that they are both disgraced but “astonishing creatures.” The strong will and rebellious spirit which led her to devote her life to perfecting her computing machine she finally sees as the rich legacy of her willful and rebellious father.

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